Odisha rarely appears when the national media discusses country’s politics. But, that has changed to some extent since Wednesday evening when Odisha Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo Naveen Patnaik suspended his party’s high-profile media-savvy MP Baijayant (Jay) Panda from the party for his anti-party activities. Anyone who follows Odisha politics even remotely was not surprised by this development, though Jay Panda pretends to be so. The four-time MP has been out of Patnaik’s favourite list since 2014 after his open flirting with BJP when Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister.
Jay Panda, the self-proclaimed founding member of the BJD, is the son of Odia industrialist (a very rare variety) Bansidhar Panda, the founder of the IMFA, and Ila Panda, a Rajya Sabha MP from 1992-1998. Bansidhar was close to Naveen Patnaik’s father, Biju Patnaik, and that connection took Ila to Rajya Sabha. After the death of Biju Patnaik, Naveen took over his father’s political legacy and formed the Biju Janata Dal in December 1997. He sent Jay Panda to Rajya Sabha in 2000 and that brought this US-educated and Delhi cocktail circuit favourite to politics. Panda continued to stay in Rajya Sabha for 9 years till Naveen gave him BJD’s most probably the safest Parliamentary seat Kendrapara to come to Lok Sabha in 2009. Panda won again in 2014 from that seat.
From 2000 to 2014, Jay Panda worked for the usually reclusive party supremo in Delhi, became BJD's face and voice in national media. However, after 2014 election, when BJP came to power getting a massive parliamentary majority (though in Odisha, BJD got 20 seats out of 21), Jay Panda’s political ambition and business interest made him Modi’s fanboy. Naveen's political instinct told him to not to create another Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, so he did not make Jay Panda the leader of BJD parliamentary party in Lok Sabha in spite of his intense lobbying. After failing in that mission, Jay Panda wanted Naveen’s support to become the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance, which also did not come through. Naveen is extremely particular about his clean image and he knew that two family companies (ICCL and IMFA) of Jay Panda are among the 20 bank defaulters in India.
BJP is trying hard to be a major player in Odisha politics, so tried hard to create fissures within BJD. In 2017 local elections, BJP displaced the Congress to emerge as the second largest party in Odisha and that gave Jay Panda the hope and he came out openly being critical of Naveen’s style of functioning. Naveen quickly removed him as his party’s spokesperson. Since then, the local leaders in Jay Panda’s constituency, Kendrapara have been openly revolting against him. When he travels to his constituency these days, he faces opposition from party workers, some even throwing eggs and tomatoes at him. It was quite clear that Naveen Patnaik was not going give him a party ticket to contest the next Lok Sabha election.
Jay Panda is erudite, rich and connected, but a rootless politician. He has a television channel in Odisha, but without a political party’s support, it will not be possible for him to win an election. His suspension has generated some hope within BJP’s national leadership of getting an entry point to win Odisha in the next election. That is nothing, but a daydream. Let me explain it.
In spite of ruling the state continuously for 17 years, Naveen is still the most popular leader in Odisha. He does not speak Odia but he knows how to get their votes. The powerful legacy of his father and his carefully crafted clean image help him, but he has a great political instinct. He has used BJP before to come to power and discarded them after 2008 Kandhamal riots. Congress party does not have the same strength in the state what it used to have until the end of 20th century. Most importantly, Naveen is a master in using populist policies to garner popular votes. After BJP’s good showing in the 2017 local election, Naveen has initiated a number of new government schemes and has become politically quite visible and accessible. The celebration of his party’s 20 years on 26 December 2017 was not only a huge political spectacle but also the selection of the venue was Jagannath’s Puri. Naveen is smartly using the combination of religious and regional symbolisms to negate any BJP advance in the state. Moreover, rumours about his health condition have also disappeared in recent months.
Naveen is not new to throwing away senior leaders of his party and making them politically irrelevant. Even before becoming the Chief Minister, he denied the ticket to a very powerful leader and possible challenger within his party Bijay Mohapatra. After that, he has removed tall leaders who were his father’s colleagues like Dilip Ray, Rama Krushna Patnaik and Pyarimohan Mohapatra. Even Pyarimohan Mohapatra had led an unsuccessful revolt against Naveen in 2012. Once all powerful Pyarimohan Mohapatra became totally isolated after that attempted revolt and died recently, while Bijay Mohapatra, Dilip Ray and Rama Krushna Patnaik have been in BJP for some years now, but strong rumors are there that they might return back to BJD soon. On 27 January 2018, Pranab Mukherjee, LK Advani and Sitaram Yechury will share stage at an event to release a pictorial biography of Biju Patnaik in Bhubaneswar. For that event, these former BJD leaders who are in BJP now have been invited. Instead of BJP gloating over the prospect that Jay Panda might join its ranks, it should rather be worried that Naveen can cause a big exodus from the party in the state.
BJP in Odisha has more leaders fewer followers. Moreover, it is also not clear whether Modi is really interested in projecting BJP as a serious opposition to Naveen in Odisha as he could be a possible ally to come back to power after the next election. Modi’s Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan is a Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar, but his political ambition is to be the BJP’s chief ministerial face in Odisha. He mostly spends his time in Odisha and is close to RSS and Amit Shah. There is also every possibility that Dharmendra Pradhan would not like to share the political limelight in Odisha with Jay Panda and will oppose his entry to BJP.
BJD continues to be the dominant political force in Odisha while BJP has a very little scope of posing any real threat to Naveen Patnaik in the next election. Congress party still has the larger base in the state compared to BJP as it has been witnessed on 24 January 2018 itself when both parties had called for a bandh in the state to protest against the alleged suicide of a gang rape victim. Jay Panda is neither a mass politician nor a great political strategist. His departure will not make even a slight dent to BJD’s electoral prospect. By getting him, BJP might strengthen its presence in television and Twitter, but will fail to gain anything in the Odisha politics.
(The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.)